The Magazine

Fight Night

Bad boxing makes good movies.

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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SIMILAR VALUES pervade "Body and Soul" (1947), a darker movie with a more explicitly anti-boxing theme. Like Danny Kenny, its lead character Charlie Davis isn't particularly attracted to the violence of the ring. But he fears failure and poverty, and he wants to support his family, struggling for respectability on New York's Lower East Side. He also wants to impress his girl--a painter who quotes William Blake and represents, the film makes clear, an ideal of refinement and grace.

Charlie's moral dilemma comes when Roberts, the gambler who promotes him, orders him to throw a big fight. If Charlie wins, he risks swimming the Hudson in a pair of cement shoes. If he loses, he retires a wealthy man. By this point Charlie has been thoroughly compromised by the fight game and Roberts's world of fast money, swank night clubs, and flashy dames. He's all set to take a dive. But anti-heroes weren't around in Hollywood in the 1940s. The Jewish Charlie has his conscience stirred when, just prior to the bout, he visits his old neighborhood and meets a friend full of ethnic pride. "Over in Europe," he reminds Charlie, "Nazis are killing people like us, just because of their religion. But here, Charlie Davis is champion. So you win, you retire as champion, and be proud."

BOXING MOVIES, good and bad, appeared almost yearly from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. This was a bad time for the sport, and its critics were even more vocal than they are today. Despite the presence of popular fighters--especially Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Archie Moore--the press increasingly portrayed the sport as dishonest and dangerous, the athletic equivalent of Russian roulette. In "Legalized Murder," a 1950 article for Look magazine, a physiologist named A.H. Steinhaus claimed that an average of ten fighters died each year from boxing-related injuries. Other fighters, "their brains knocked out," became "the living dead of pugilism, the victims of its occupational disease: punch drunkenness."

Senate hearings in the early 1960s confirmed the wide assumption that professional boxing had been essentially run for years by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, shifty promoters with links to organized crime. Carbo and his boys routinely muscled fighters and their managers to take bribes and rig matches--even championships.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, many of the better boxing films of the era--including "Champion" (1949), "The Set Up" (1949), and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962)--took up boxing's seamier side. Based on Budd Schulberg's 1946 novel, "The Harder They Fall" (1956) is the best of these. Its main villain, Nick Benko, is a ruthless promoter convinced that boxing is nothing more than a crude form of show business. But Benko worries that marketable fighters have grown scarce. "All the good fighters are gone," he laments. "The boys are getting too smart. They all want to go to college. They don't want to fight for a living." So Benko looks elsewhere for fresh blood and finds a circus performer and promoter's dream named Toro Moreno in Argentina. Toro (played by Mike Lane) is modeled partly on Primo Carnera, a lumbering giant who briefly held the heavyweight belt in the 1930s, following a series of dubious victories. Built like a silo and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, Toro towers over his opponents. But he doesn't know a straight right from a left jab. So Benko feeds him "tank artists" paid to cower and drop.

To help promote Toro, Benko hires an unemployed sports reporter named Eddie Willis, played by Humphrey Bogart in his final film role. The jaded Eddie quickly spots Toro's liabilities: "a powder puff punch and a glass jaw." But Eddie has bills to pay, and he's tired of scraping by on a newsman's wages: "When a man passes forty," he says, "he shouldn't have to run anymore." Suppressing his scruples, Eddie becomes Toro's publicist and, eventually, his trusted friend. But Eddie soon finds himself sinking in a world of moral compromise. At close range he finds the fight game a tawdry circus of gamblers and pimps and managers who regard their fighters with sneering contempt.

Toro's myth is shattered when he meets the reigning champion, a psychopathic brawler obsessed with making "the Wild Man of the Andes" look bad. In his final fight, Toro is savaged, left battered and senseless on the mat. Benko completes the humiliation by stealing Toro's pay, leaving him fifty bucks out of a million-dollar gate. "You let him get beat to a pulp," Eddie tells Benko, "and then you leave him with a hole in his pocket." In the film's final scenes, Eddie is back at his typewriter, vowing to expose the plight of fighters in a murky system run by dishonorable men.